Disclosing mental health issues to supervisor


I’m a first year PhD student and I’m 7 months into my PhD. In December, I became pretty badly depressed, in February I decided that it was time to get professional help (through the university counselling service), but because of the waiting list I didn’t have my first appointment until the end of April.

Throughout this period, my progress has been insanely slow. I’m distracted, unmotivated, and highly stressed. I’m sure my supervisor has noticed the lack of progress, but he’s too nice to say anything. We don’t have a bad relationship, but we don’t have a great relationship since COVID limits the amount of face-to-face time the supervisors can have with their students. I am starting to feel a little better thanks to therapy, but I feel like it’s going to be quite a while before I’m back to my usual productive self. I’m not sure if I should tell my supervisor about what’s going on? On one hand, I’d like him to know what has been affecting my progress, but on the other hand, I’m not sure what good that will do. I’m also quite worried that he’ll think this is a weird thing to tell him about (it is quite personal after all), or treat me poorly because he sees me as less capable.

Does anyone have any advice/actual experience of going through this? I’m leaning towards keeping it to myself, but I’d really not sure.


Hello- I went through the exact same thing around the same timeframe and struggled with the same issues. I felt quite guilty that my supervisor didn't know what was going on, but it is also something that is difficult to disclose. It's part of what I dislike about being a PhD student- sometimes you feel like you fall through the cracks a little. The relationship with a supervisor is more like a working relationship, but you don't really have the same supports and processes for these things as a workplace (ie. going to HR) and have to navigate a lot of this yourself.

I ended up emailing my supervisors telling them what was happening, and I took 2 weeks of annual leave which I stated was for mental health reasons. Taking annual leave was also another way of saying 'I'm struggling, I need a break'. When telling my supervisors I kept it professional and practical and kept details about my mental health to a bare minimum- I stated what was happening briefly, how it was impacting my work and what I was going to do to try and move forward. I was very focused on the impact and solutions part, as I did not really want to invite discussion or offload the mental health aspects onto my supervisor. They were perfectly understanding and I took the time away from my project which I would highly recommend.

I cannot promise that all supervisors react the same and it may be naive to ignore the stigma's that exist around mental health, but these issues are becoming more recognised and the university has a duty of care towards you. What you are going through are legitimate, incredibly difficult but common issues. I ended up thinking- I need to take care of myself, I need to cover myself and if I were supervising any student and they were struggling, I would want to know. I tell you this as my experience and what I decided, but there is no real right answer and I would not want to make you feel as though you had to disclose something you did not want to. You could also perhaps take the time away, without explicitly explaining why and the outcomes for yourself would be similar. This could perhaps be something to ask university counselling, who may also help with how to word things to your supervisor whatever you decide.

Workwise, you have taken some really positive steps and should be proud. Strip back your work to small amounts of low stake interaction each day- it may feel slow but I promise you are making more progress than you think. Having a small amount of work you can tick off each day will help you feel less stressed and your work more manageable. In reality, a PhD is small amounts of steady progress over a long period of time. Two things I learnt during this time 1) I am more important than my PhD 2) this period of time does not define myself or my whole PhD journey- these things are fixable! I hope that helps.

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Quote From lostimposter_:
I’m also quite worried that he’ll think this is a weird thing to tell him about (it is quite personal after all), or treat me poorly because he sees me as less capable.

Talking about mental health is becoming less and less taboo everyday. You might be surprised how positive of response you will get. I was like you and hid most of my mental health issues from my supervisor. Until I had a panic attack while presenting a flash presentation at a conference with my supervisor ( halfway through I completely froze and the only thing I could say was "sorry, I am really sorry" ). That incident kinda forced me to open up to my supervisor about my anxiety issues and she was incredibly understanding. I have been having anxiety issues since I was a teenager but my supervisor was the first time I ever talked to someone about it. I don't know if I am lucky but since then she has been considerate every time I have told her I am having trouble and I don't think she has judge me any different. That doesn't mean she gives me a free pass for everything, and she does push me to overcome small issues but I am glad I told her.

I completely agree with b41832, both about telling your supervisor and how to manage it. I would just add that your supervisor was once a PhD student and a lot of academics went through similar situations to yourself. Just because people didn’t talk about mental health 20 years ago doesn’t mean they didn’t experience it. It is also in their best interest for you to perform well and they will at least try to help you in order to help themselves. So even the most cynical supervisor will want you to help you just so that they can have another PhD completion or even better get a publication.


I'd add it's very important to document and officially be unwell.

What happens to a lot of students, with depression, is they work at diminished capacity without reporting or recording it. Typically, sickness absence by HR standards is very binary (you're off sick, or not).

You risk digging yourself a hole if you work at diminished capacity with no formal record of illness or absence, since you will be assumed to be someone capable but doing a bad job, rather than someone who is unwell and doing their best.

It is better to be officially 'off sick', and if work is a helpful distraction, then by all means do it, rather than officially 'well' and 'under-performing'.

This will have implications for review/completion dates etc. You will likely find as other posters mentioned your supervisor to be understanding and sympathetic, but if you're not able to work 100% this means your PhD will likely take longer, and having this officially recorded makes a huge difference to how this will be accommodated. I understand with depression it's not as simple as you're sick for x months then fine; but systemically the issue is if you're never actually off sick, then the schedule and assessment stands as though you were completely fit to work, which can result in a lot of unhelpful stress and pressure later down the line. Administratively, being off sick for 6 months whilst working is much better if you're struggling than being fine and working at diminished capacity.


Thanks for your advice everyone, it’s been really helpful. Now I just need to pluck up the courage to tell him!